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Alan Arkin (1934-2023)

Alan Arkin (1934 – 2023)

Oscar winner Alan Arkin, whose background in improvisation and knack for comic drama were cornerstones of his extensive genre-hopping career that yielded enduring characters from the 1960s comedy “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” to “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Argo,” has died.

"The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming"

Arkin’s wry wit and off-hand performances brought realism to his work as he played his characters straight, making the droll moments more hilarious. Arkin added depth to the characters he played with elaborate costumes, makeup and quirky personality tics, delivering a fresh film nearly every year until late in life.

Versatile and adaptable, Arkin launched his career as a member of Chicago’s influential improvisational troupe, Second City. He won a Tony Award for his first Broadway play, Carl Reiner’s “Enter Laughing,” before making his film debut in the 1966 Cold War farce “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.” He earned a lead actor Oscar nomination and won a lead actor Golden Globe award for his role as the submarine commander in the film.

"The Seven Percent Solution"

As the years went by, Arkin seemed to work at a furious pace. He played the bumbling detective in “Inspector Clouseau,” inheriting the role from Peter Sellers after Sellers departed from the “Pink Panther” franchise. Arkin went on to appear in “Catch-22,” “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” “The In-Laws,” “Fire Sale”, “St. Elsewhere,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Gattaca” and “Slums of Beverly Hills” before winning his Oscar for “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Alan Arkin and Rob Reiner in "Fire Sale"

Arkin believed that the key to making people laugh was to approach silly with seriousness, which is what he did as he played a serviceman working out the insanity of warfare in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and “Catch-22”; a salesman surreptitiously moving his family around like nomads in 1998’s “Slums of Beverly Hills”; and a prosperous dentist reluctantly drawn into espionage in 1979’s odd-couple comedy “The In-Laws.”

“The more legitimate you make it, the funnier it is,” Arkin said in 2008. “I love insane, stupid comedy, but I can only make it work if it’s a character I can give some history to and make real. Like the guy I played in ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ He’s a maniac, but to me, he was absolutely believable.”

“I always considered myself a character actor,” he told The Times in 1991. “That’s what I always wanted to be. I always liked mustaches and hair and limps and nose pieces and accents.”

In his 2011 memoir, “An Improvised Life,” Arkin wrote that “outside my life as an actor I had almost no life at all.” The book was among the half-dozen or so he published, including his 1979 autobiography “Halfway Through the Door,” several children’s books, science fiction stories and screenplays for short films. Away from the set, he enjoyed photography, playing jazz guitar and songwriting.

Alan Wolf Arkin was born on March 26, 1934, in New York City. His parents were teachers but his father was also a writer and painter.

 When Arkin finally made it to Broadway in 1963’s “Enter Laughing,” he earned glowing notices and a Tony Award. The following year he starred in Murray Schisgal’s “Luv,” directed by Mike Nichols, and eventually caught the eye of filmmaker Norman Jewison, who cast Arkin in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”

Arkin is survived by his wife Suzanne and three sons, Adam, Matthew and Anthony; grandchildren Molly, Emmet, Atticus and Abigail, and great grandson Elliott.